Discussion With Marie Howe: "What the Living Do"

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:56 min

Learn how what began as a letter to her brother became one of Marie’s most acclaimed poems with “What the Living Do.”

Billy Collins
Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - Next, Marie and I are going to each- we're going to look at one of our own poems and talk about it. I've never done this with anybody before, and I have no idea what's going to happen. But Marie's going to start, and like, as in a workshop, she's going to read her poem first, and then we'll say something about it. And her poem is from the book "What the Living Do," and it's the title poem. - Thank you, Billy. You know, I want to say since I was talking about the difficulty of writing sometimes, and this poem came at the end of a long writing day. I'd been writing all day, working on four or five different poems at once. Finally, I just pushed everything aside. I said, I'm not going to write a poem. - Yeah. - I'm just going to write a letter to my dead brother. - Yeah. - And this is what happened. What the living do. My brother's name is John. Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days. Some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It's winter again. The sky is a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living room windows, because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking. I've been thinking, this is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve. I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush. This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come, and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call, or not call, a letter, a kiss. We want more, and more, and then more of it. But there are moments walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep from my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless. I am living. I remember you. - Such a powerful poem. I talked the other day about that poems often are preceded by other poems that are never completed. You might write for an hour or two, and nothing's happening. But the poem that takes place after that, you couldn't write if you hadn't done that scribbling before. So many things about this poem. It does-- it does feel inspired. It does-- the way it kind of jumps forward into-- like "for weeks now, every day, Johnny, yesterday." It's kind of all around in time, but there are moments. But there's a combination of the every day, particularly, the speaker being left alone, and unable to fix the sink, and thinking some utensil probably fell down. They're not sure. The dishes are piled up. The living-- she can't deal with the living room heat and all...

Let imagination lead the way

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This class is thoughtful, informative, and supportive of poetry, of writing practice, and of poets.

I don't know if it has improved what I can do ... I haven't done enough of it yet to have a comparison... I enjoyed the class, the descriptions of the process. I will have to find out how effective this was by doing.

I've learned so much about how to approach poetry and how to think about it. The words Billy Collins used to talk about writing, things like: turning over cards, hiding, playing, persona. These words and how he looks at writing and reading is fantastical and enlightening. He is poetry living

Billy Collins is funny and accessible and knows what he's talking about. I trust him.


Victoria H.

One thing I love to do is write letters to the dead, as if they are a ghost at my table and I discussing some memories with them, it's not always honest but some things I have imagined or my mind just made have made up cause it wanted me to experience it with the person. I find poems easier to write good if I imagine a dead person I loved is sitting at my table and we are just talking. I don't think I could of wrote some of my best work, if I wasn't such a lonely person with make believe friends and ghost with me all the time.

Kaerla F.

"Fork", "nose", and other funny words. Why do we find them funny, I wonder? I loved Marie's poem, and the discussion. It reminds me of my Poetry classes in college, which I loved.

Kasy L.

I loved Marie Howe's poem. This is the first time I have read it. This was a really fascinating discussion, as well.

Karen S.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem and for the fascinating discussion. It's such a pleasure to discover and rediscover so many wonderful poems.

Tanya H.

Father I remember my childhood was not always meek and gay I remember how you were happy, but I also made you angry in some way I remember the times when you taught me music and the guitar, you’d play I remember the ax handle you use to use on me in another way I know you loved me in your own tender way I know you hated me from day to day I know you would say that I was God’s child and I would stay I know you would say that I was not your child and you wanted to slay I learned a lot being your kid I learned not to be treated like a punching bag I learned not to treat people bad I learned to forgive, love, play and be happy in a special way But most of all what I learned being your child is how to survive from day to day.


Loved the poem and the duscussion of the poem, including her friends spot on suggestions for word choice. Reminded me of the poem I wrote for my brother who died so young and wh I miss, too.


Soul touching revelation by the lady, yet the wisdom of the gentleman is cold, thoughts n feellings playing like babies, what the living do with poetry ever gets old?

Gavin R.

This is a beautiful discussion. Clear, down to lexical detail, and moving. It encapsulates - almost - everything poetry does in hand gestures.

Mary J.

An interesting parallel with the earlier Sonnet 73 which also addresses love and death. I found the stanza about "We want" to be the most powerful language because the poet is united with her brother in the yearning that is life.

John S.

Thus far, this discussion with Marie Howe has been my favorite. I would like to write a poem as good as her "What the Living Do," so I intend to use Collins' writing prompt...Write a letter to someone you know.... I already have a person in mind; someone I used to work with very closely, but haven't see or spoken with in several years.